Saturday, 31 January 2009

Seeing the Changes 165



In spite of the cold snaps, in Loughor, Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) was having an attempt to flower. Heather (Calluna vulgaris) was flowering vigorously in that location. Around Bynea, masses of yellow, male catkins of Hazel (Corylus arvellana) were prominent.

Organic 'Holiday'?

I have always had a slight problem with 'organic foods' because my chemical background simply regards the term as referring to any molecule with carbon in it. Having said that, I do understand the concept (again, taking mild umbrage with expressions such as "chemical free") and a Swansea project student, Carly Smith, has found, in a questionnaire survey of around 200 people in the Llanelli area, that the term is much better recognised than other food applied epithets such as 'Freedom Foods' and 'Fairtrade'. The recent suggestion, however, that some 'organic farmers' should be allowed a temporary 'holiday' from strict adherence to the rules, without eventually having to go back through the expensive business of re-qualifying for the label (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7858813.stm) does raise a number of issues. The basic driver for this suggestion is the 'credit crunch' resulting in fewer people buying organic food from some vendors, combined with a higher costs of animal feed not being reflected in any premium the farmer can charge for his more expensive product. The idea is that such farmers should be allowed to feed their stock cheaper food so long as they do not sell the meat etc as 'organic'. I can see how this might work for a single meat animal (although the housing locations would have to be very vigorously 'cleaned' when reverting back to the 'organic' label) but I do not see how it could be applied to the milk from dairy cattle and wonder about the manure use in the case of vegetables. One also wonders whether, in some cases, the 'holiday' will ever end. Is 'organic' only a rich person's affectation?

Freshwater Frenzy?

An enthusiasm seems to be developing in the UK for creating new ponds as 'hot spots' of biodiversity (http://www.pondconservation.org.uk/millionponds/). The plan aims to double the number of ponds by digging half a million (restoring the number lost over the last 150 years). The activity can work very well, as an artificially created pond at Pinkhill by the Thames, has become one of the richest for freshwater animal and plant life in the country in a remarkably short space of time. There are occasional problems (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/wiltshire/7853070.stm) as burgeoning fish have had to be 're-located' from the Caen Hill set of locks near Devizes in Wiltshire as they have been endangering rare dragonfly nymphs and aquatic plants. Ponds can, of course, be invaded by problem-causing alien species of plants such as Parrot's feather (shown) and Water hyacinth. Management will be needed at least to some degree. I have had personal experience of the enthusiasm for the natural world that can be encouraged in young children by activities such as pond dipping at both the National Wetlands Centre Wales at Llanelli (http://www.wwt.org.uk/centre/120/national_wetland_centre_wales.html) and the National Botanic Garden Wales (http://www.gardenofwales.org.uk/). I regard this as being an excellent way of developing an early understanding of the environment and the need for taxonomic (identification) skills.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Even More Expensive Deer?

The UK deer 'overpopulation' story is back again (http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/conservation/wildlife-management-licensing/species/deer.htm). Recent media attention has focused on the number of fatal and non-fatal accidents 'caused' by these animals (in some cases, the humans have some responsibility) as well as the damage their burgeoning numbers cause to trees and other woodland plants. Culling of these animals is difficult (they are not easy to shoot humanely), especially when other groups of folk are apparently merrily placing 'rescued' deer into 'spare' woodland habitat. Of course, not all the deer species that we have are indigenous to this country (some are clearly 'alien' species like Japanese knotweed). Now that hunting with dogs has been curtailed, there is also strictly limited enthusiasm for introducing wolf packs or European lynx to control their numbers (they might well eat other animals including people and their domesticated animals). It will be interesting to see how Bambi gets on.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Seeing the Changes 164






On the cycle path between Swansea and Mumbles, in addition to Groundsel and Lesser celendine , there were multitudinous Daisy (Bellis perennis), occasional Dandelion (Taraxacum spp), along with a smattering of escaped Garden crocus (Crocus albiflorus) and Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). The strangely ubiquitous pink Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) was also much in evidence and Alder (Alnus glutinosa) catkins were advanced.

Take Me For A Ride?

The news that an extra 2.3 billion £s will be allocated to help save the car industry in the UK (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jan/28/car-industry-peter-mandelson) raises some interesting issues. It is certainly the case that many UK jobs are directly and indirectly tied up with this activity. It is also the case that much of the car industry is not UK owned and the demand for cars has declined by more than 20%. Cars are, of course, currently major sources of pollution and congestion. Is this an effective use of public finance? I guess it depends on how the money is used. Apparently, part of the cash is to encourage (as in the USA) the car industry to move to 'greener' products that produce less carbon dioxide etc but one could make a case for conditions signalling a potential end to the 'car owning democracy'. There probably isn't enough planet and resources for everyone to have individual modes of private transport that involve the internal combustion engine. It will be interesting to see whether the finance represents an elastoplast or a graft for the injured industry.

Knock on Wood!

It has been claimed (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/14/domestic-wood-burning) that there is a rise in the burning of wood in UK homes as a consequence of increasing costs of other fuels (gas and electricity). The UK apparently annually grows up to 1 million tonnes of firewood but imports (adding to the carbon footprint) around another 180,000 tonnes of wood and wood products. This sounds a lot but prices per 'load' (very regionally varied) are increasing along with the incidence of rogue sellers of unseasoned green (in the other sense) woods. In spite of this, it has been estimated by the Forestry Commission that some 7.5 million tonnes of wood (30% being of 'burnable quality') goes into landfill annually. All this sounds very traditional (and a bit wasteful) but it should be remembered that a greater proportion of the world's population cook on wood (much more than are 'cooking on gas'). All this activity reduces forests (although one can make a case for effective harvesting) but, so long as the woodlands are encouraged to regrow recycles the carbon. There probably is scope for efficient wood burning as an energy source in the UK (in deed, the Government is said to have a woodfuel strategy for England aiming to annually heat an extra 250,000 homes with an extra 2 million tonnes of 'green' wood by 20200 so long as options like solar and wind power are not neglected. Going back to the point of the landfill wood, I have been told that the Aztecs used a process to generate 'biocharcoal' from wood which was added to soil to improve its properties. This apparently very carbon efficient process (in spite of requiring heat) 'locks' carbon in the soil for hundreds of years. Why don't we convert our waste wood products in this way and use the product to improve soil fertility?

Clone, Clone on the Range

Yet another report on the BBC breakfast news about a rich Florida couple who claim to have paid a South Korean company $150,000 to clone their pet Golden Labrador 'Lancelot' as 'Lancelot encore'. Stories of the 'first' commercially cloned pet seem to come around at regular intervals (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7246380.stm). They have a different dog/cat and different folk but there are similar dramatic costs. The first thing to note is that a cloned pet, although having the DNA of the original, will never be an exact copy (due to environmental influences, including the fact that the 'parent' animal is unlikely to have visited a Korean laboratory) of its template. This insistence on having the 'same' pet also seems a little weird as death is a fact of life (perhaps it's worth trying to learn to cope with this?) and how are your memories going to deal with having several sequential versions of the companion beast? Given the numbers of unwanted pets 'put down' annually by the RSPCA and its US equivalents, there goes appear to be masses of cheaper alternatives. There is also a suspicion (from 'Dolly' the sheep etc) that clones may not last very well. Having said all that, the Korean laboratory have clearly identified a massive potential market. I wonder though when we are going to have the first court case from a client who feels they were sold a pup.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Gower Otters

Dr Dan Forman and his crew have featured again in the TV media (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00h6x96), giving accounts of the 'return' of the European otter (Lutra lutra) to the rivers in and around the Gower, This formerly much persecuted mammal has now made of welcome return to river systems in South Wales. One interesting thing about these animals is their flexibility in terms of food source utilisation. Otters, far from being restricted to a diet of fish, eat birds, other mammals, amphibia, crustacea and insects when the mood takes them. Humans, in terms of sheer disturbance and killing otters crossing roads by running them down in their cars, still seem to be this secretive mammal's most dangerous foe.

Severn, Eight, Nine, Ten

The short-listed projects for energy generation using the tidal power of the Severn estuary to generate 'green' electricity have been announced (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/26/barrage-tidal-severn). Quite a divergence seems to be developing between the engineers/ local political folk who seem to favour a full barrage and various environmental groups who support a range of lesser options involving partial barrages, lagoons and other set ups. The cost versus benefits analyses of the various options seem very difficult to pin down accurately and it is not clear that an entirely balanced choice will emerge.

C-C-Cannabis

The decision (http://drugs.homeoffice.gov.uk/drugs-laws/cannabis-reclassifications/) by the UK Government to change the grading of cannabis back from a category C drug to category B (with more stringent legal penalties) in spite of the recommendations of their expert scientific panel is hardly remarkable. The classifications are somewhat arbitrary (one could make good cases for alcohol, nicotine and gambling being addictive 'drugs' in the case of substantial numbers of people) and this is one of the areas where science comes into conflict with advocacy (about individual experiences, changes in drug strength etc). The trouble is that advocacy tends to win every time as a) people don't understand science and b) there are votes (and positive newspaper headlines) to the gained by following the popular conclusions of advocacy (in deed, making the most convincing case by stressing items that support your view whilst 'downplaying' anything that runs counter to it is precisely how politicians and lawyers operate). It's no surprise that cannabis is B-B-Back in category B! Some of these issues (and the differing reliabilities of the 'evidence' utilised) are explored in a recent BBC Horizon programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00hhmd1/Horizon_Cannabis_The_Evil_Weed/). The basic conclusion seems to be that, although it creates serious problems for some users, cannabis isn't in the same ballpark as heroin and cocaine.

Catch the Fat!

A UK newspaper has headlined the story that obesity may be contagious (http://express.lineone.net/posts/view/53983/Getting-fat-is-catching), based largely on an American claim that has been bubbling around for some time that adenovirus infections cause adipose cells to multiply. It has also (naturally) been observed that obesity 'runs in families' but that is, of course, more likely to be a consequence of people adopting a common life-style and diet rather than sharing the same gene(s). There may well be modest genetic and virus-associated aspects of obesity but I personally feel that it is unhelpful to try to 'sell' fat people the idea that they have (no fault of their own) a medical condition (although we know obesity per se is associated with a wide range of medical risks). For the vast majority of people, calorie intake minus calorie utilisation is the major equation involved in gaining weight (in spite of steroids changing muscle mass, maturation generally increasing body size, degree of body hydration producing transient changes etc). Diet and exercise seem to be is answers for most folk. A detailed BBC Horizon programme (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7838668.stm) explores many of these issues concluding that some obese and skinny people have body mechanisms (e.g. sensations of constant hunger or increased metabolism) that tend to return them to their 'natural' weight when they respectively lose or gain mass as a consequence of taking in restricted or excess calories.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Let There Be (More) Light!

Reports (http://www.bedfordtoday.co.uk/bed-news/Charity-warns-of-dangers-of.4866317.jp) that a number of vision-related charities have asked the UK Government to reconsider the banning of tungsten light bulbs in favour of new energy efficient alternatives because the diffuse light of the replacements does not offer the same contrast (speaking as one who has had operations for cataracts in both eyes, I can confirm that the apparent fading of print makes life very difficult in our visual world). It's also said that older people tend to find the light generated by the new bulbs difficult. Having said this, the proposed ban is a result of an EU directive so they may be targeting the wrong people.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

What's In a Name?

The fashion for company name changes is fraught with danger. One of the latest is the conversion of the Norwich Union insurance company to Aviva (in anticipation of going global). There is one ugly rumour that there is a clothes shop with the same name in the city of Norwich (a subliminal influence?). Even if this turns out to be an urban myth, the name is odd. The word 'viva' is found in both Italian and Spanish and means 'live' (it is derived from the Latin 'vivat' meaning 'to live'). I appreciate that it is from the Greek (but Latin/Greek chimera words are quite common in Biology) but the prefix 'a' means 'without'. So one potential (if somewhat contorted) translation of Aviva is 'without life' i.e. 'death'. This doesn't fill me with confidence about the product but the rebranders may be hoping to get us to regard their insurance as inevitable as death and taxes.

Seeing the Changes 163





In Loughor, Lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria) and Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) are in flower along with Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans). In that location and Bynea, the catkins of Goat willow (Salix caprea) and Alder (Alnus glutinosa) are starting to pop.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Birder's Bonus 36

It's that week when the RSPB encourages the masses (as they have done for the last 30 years) to undertake a garden bird survey by watching out for our feathered brethren on their home bird tables and feeders (http://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/?_$ja=kw:garden+bird+surveycgn:Big+Garden+Bird+Watchcgid:355558193tsid:2934cn:Birdcid:13504373lid:4319936617mt:Broadnw:searchcrid:2860980083). The charity offers lots of identification help (including supplements in Sunday newspapers) in the 'Big Garden Birdwatch' and the data does give a reasonable snapshot of the bird species that are around in UK gardens at the most trying time of the year (increasing the chances of amateur recorders seeing reasonable numbers of flying snackers). The event, of course, has a number of minor flaws (quite apart from the possibility of misidentification and the same bird being recorded by neighbours). It will not pick up species that migrate into the country at other times. It also largely attracts bold birds that feed on seeds, nuts, bread and fat balls (if all are available). Other species (unless they are flying in to feed on the smaller birds) are much less likely to be recorded. Having said all that, the data is for free and the event is an excellent publicity event for the organisation. In my garden on Sunday 25th January 2009, several (more than 6) Starlings, 3 Blackbirds, 3 Long-tailed tits, 2 Magpies and single European robin, Blue tit, Great tit, Song thrush and Chaffinch were seen (quite a normal collection?).
It is interesting (also in a bird direction) to note that school children in a Gateshead school are apparently being enthused by pigeon breeding and keeping (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/7434980.stm). Birds seem to be a good focus for educational activities.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Seeing the Changes 162


Very varied weather of late (extreme cold to relatively warm, wet and windy) and surprised to find a bedraggled (and squashed?) hairy caterpillar on the cycle path in Bynea. In Loughor, the Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is poking through.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?

The 'hot' news (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7832301.stm) that an internal US flight from New York was forced down into the Hudson river (fortunately, without any loss of life) by a bird strike (probably geese) emphasises one of the particular difficulties of citing airports in wetland locations. The 'local' UK debate about alternatives to a 3rd Heathrow runway, including the possibility of creating an island in the Thames estuary would certainly have to take this possibility into consideration. It will be interesting (seeing how the protagonists are lined up) to see what happens in relation to the proposed Heathrow development (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/16/heathrow-runway-politics). It is difficult to see how increased flights can be accommodated with a simultaneous planned reduction in UK carbon dioxide generation and a limiting of noise. The concept of 'green' flights seems unrealistic, as even the much-touted 'biofuels', generate 'greenhouse gases' and carbon offsetting by planting trees) doesn't appear to work .

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Stone the Crows!

We are all used to stories about the dire consequences of the Ravens leaving the Tower of London (the resident birds are actually offered inducements to get them to stay!) but a report has been received (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/13/crows-pollution-iran-environment-wildlife) that crows are leaving Tehran in Iran. It is claimed that air pollution (e.g. high levels of carbon monoxide) may have caused this exodus but, given that crows are opportunistic birds that benefit from waste and the dead bodies of other animals, it seems somewhat surprising that this species is amongst the first to have (apparently) fled the location. Other factors might well be involved.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

On Autism and Masculinity

The report (http://www.nhs.uk/news/2009/01January/Pages/Autismscreening.aspx) that there appears to be a link between autistic features and exposure of male foetuses to high levels of testosterone via the amniotic fluid in which they float is interesting. Some writers have gone so far as to say that autism (a very varied group of symptoms and abilities but generally linked to difficulties of empathy and sociability) represents a 'hyper-masculinization' process. It is certainly true that autism is more frequently found in male children and that the male brain in mammals is 'switched' from its basic female mode by earlier exposure in the womb to sex hormones (the embryonic testis secretes testosterone earlier than the embryonic ovary produces its predominant oestrogens). One effect of the masculinizing process is to make the individual more 'single-minded' (perhaps a reason why males are not good at multi-tasking).Having said that, there is evidence that (certainly in some mammals) the testosterone is transformed into oestrogen (there are enzyme systems in the brain) before it produces its subtle changes in the central nervous system. It would be interesting to know whether historically higher incidences of autistic features in male children were evident in the offspring of women with adrenogenital syndrome (where her adrenal glands produce high concentrations of androgens) and women treated with DES (the oestrogen, diethylstilbestrol) to reduce the chance of miscarriage up to the 1970s. There might even be scope linking the incidence of autism to exposure of pregnant women to phytoestrogens (natural oestrogens in some plants) and certain oestrogenic insecticides. I suspect that one problem would be that autism has only recently been a systematic diagnosis.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Slap Another Caramelised Camel on the Barbie?

The Australian solution to any animal over-population appears to be to suggest adding surplus beasts to the cookbooks (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/jan/12/wild-camel-eat-australia). We have already had this suggestion in relation to the Kangaroo (Kanga kedgeree?) and now there is a suggestion that the booming camel populations (http://www.camelsaust.com.au/) could be trimmed by encouraging people to eat the meat (said to be a 'healthy option' between beef and venison) stewed (perhaps, as in Morocco, with prunes, caramelised onions or even apples). These mammals were, of course, first imported as transport for desert locations but have now become feral as a result of people turning to the 4-wheel drive. It does, for the sake of indigenous animals and plants, appear to be beneficial to limit their numbers. Strangely, suggestions that the UK could solve its Grey squirrel population problems in a similar manner have not be taken up with alacrity.

Monday, 12 January 2009

A Runway in the Thames?

It has been claimed, yet again, that, rather than building a 3rd runway at Heathrow, it would be better to create an entirely new airport (a la Hong Kong) on an artificial island in the Thames estuary (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article5489413.ece). The advocates of the scheme maintain that such an airport could operate 24 hours a day (without noise pollution blighting the lives of many people under the flight paths) and that high speed rail links could rapidly transport passengers into London. All this may be true but a Thames-located, 24/7 airport would cause considerable problems for resident bird populations in that area. They could also constitute a hazard for the flights. Birds don't vote but a proper impact assessment is needed before the estuary scheme is floated as a real viable alternative.

Googling to Meltdown?

The claim has been made (http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article5489134.ece) by a physicist (Alex Wissner-Gross) that a 'typical' google search generates about 7 g of carbon dioxide (compared with the energy involved in boiling a kettle of water that produces about 15 g). This is because Google uses "huge data centres around the world that consume a great deal of power". As it has been estimated that there are approximately 200 million internet searches in total across the globe each day, the 'carbon footprint' of googling is not insignificant (although it's not on the scale of many other human activities). There is consequently a bit of a dilemma for individuals who hope to use the world wide web to advocate more responsible use of the planet's resources.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Terminal Turbines?

The news story, carried in the Sun and elsewhere, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/organgrinder/2009/jan/08/windpower-thesun) that a 130 foot rotor in Conisholme, Lincolnshire had possibly been destroyed by aliens further illustrates just how easily confused people can be by fast-moving events at a distance. Rather than a creature with tentacles, there appears to have been a firework display in the area, coinciding with metal fatigue in one of the arms of the rotor. The alternative suggestion that an object 'the size of a cow' might have hit and damaged the rotor has thrown up the suggestion that a block of ice from the toilets of a passing plane could be a (disappearing after the event) candidate. There was no evidence of moon-leaping bovines in the vicinity.

Waste Waste

The report (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/07/waste-disposal-environment-recycling) that the 'credit crunch' has led to a dramatic fall in prices for waste paper, plastics, metals and bottles should not be used as an argument against recycling. I appreciate that economics (along with the energy costs of re utilising material) are issues (the former excellent prices for UK waste in China were certainly a strong stimulus) but, without recycling, there would still be a need for disposal of masses of material. Burning (presumably with effective carbon capture) to generate energy might be appropriate for some materials and locations but land fill disposal has many short term and long term problems. It seems short-termism to condemn recycling simply because some of the collected materials have to currently (admittedly at a cost) be stored.

Going Cuckoo Over the Cuckoo

There seems to be a lot of excitement about a BBC film on the European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00gmxl7) in which the bird is described as "a cheat, a thief and a killer". The clip of the 'murderous' chick throwing the host's chick out of the nest was, apparently, too rich for breakfast time TV! I think that people are getting a bit anthropocentric about the bird's interesting lifestyle. The first thing to note is that brood parasitism (the taking over of parental care and/or resources) is quite widespread in the Animal Kingdom (it's certainly not limited to birds) and obligate brood parasitism (where the animal is incapable of rearing its own young) is not limited to the cuckoo. So far as the cuckoo chick is concerned, killing the young of another species of bird is not 'murder'. It is simply ensuring that it doesn't have to share the resource of parental foraging, an activity that probably couldn't rear the cuckoo chick and natural fledglings (so it's not unlike a parasitic wasp utilising the tissues of a caterpillar). Certainly, this is no 'crueler' than a bird of prey chick consuming a smaller nest mate (from a second egg laid as an 'insurance policy'). A predator eating its prey, a gut parasite consuming the host from the inside, a caterpillar being raised in an ant colony and a virus replicating in host tissues are no less exploiting! A commentator intelligently raised the issue of why the cuckoo chick doesn't inappropriately imprint on its host species as a potential mate etc. It appears that most of this bird's behaviour is programmed (they effectively don't have real parents or siblings to copy). The fact that brood parasitism can be quite ubiquitous and opportunistic is further illustrated by the fact that quite a high percentage of human 'fathers' are genetically unrelated to their 'offspring'. The habit of the photographed Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) of depositing additional eggs in the nests of their neighbours or even in the nest of a nearby Coot (Fulica atra) is also brood parasitism (although not, in this case, obligate). The whole process of brood parasitism is just a remarkable method of exploiting available resources.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

100 Out!

It has been reported that panic buying of 100 watt tungsten light bulbs is occurring in the UK (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7817131.stm) in response to an EU directive that will outlaw their manufacture (and sale?) by September 2009. This is, of course, part of the drive to reduce energy use and to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the region (leading to strap lines a la Churchill about "The lights are going out across Europe (again)"). Some of the public questioned don't seem to like the new 'greener' bulbs on the basis of a) cost and/or b) the quality/quantity of light they emit. It is claimed that costs will come down and that the new bulbs will produce as much light as the old (in time?). Tungsten bulbs have been with us for more than 100 years and it certainly seems that there is a need for an effective 'selling' of the new technology based on more than energy or cost savings. After all, people apparently still find candles more 'romantic' than electric lighting. Are we going to see contraband 100 watt tungsten bulbs smuggled in from foreign parts or manufactured in clandestine factories?

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Rats Come in From the Cold

As we speak, a wild rat is hanging from the bird peanut dispenser in my garden. These relatively ubiquitous and innovative animals have been in the news recently (with a BBC claim that the current cold spell in the UK has led to a great increase in call outs to rodent pest controllers). The cold snap increases the need for both shelter and food, making rats likely to invade human habitations and places like chicken runs where there are luxurious conditions for colonies of these commensal beasts (they tend to get more noticed than mice). The rats has no concept of ownership, so my peanuts are fair game so far has he is concerned.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Detoxing the Detox 'Cures'

The organisation 'Sense About Science' has examined some of the claims made by 11 sellers of detox 'cures' for seasonal over-indulgence available in respectable UK shops(http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/jan/05/detox-science). These included drinks, dietary supplements, special patches (for the feet) and a 'detox brush' that allegedly "stimulates the lymphatic system to help remove impurities and toxins from your skin". None of the 'treatments' appeared to have a clearly defined scientific basis (but when has this ever stopped sales to believers?). The scientists involved maintain (not unreasonably) that reducing smoking and alcohol ingestion might be more effective strategies. One might also add that watching what one eats might also be a good idea along with taking a bit of exercise. Our kidneys and liver (if they are in good working order) are excellent detox machines but the 'cures' may have placebo effects that help some individuals.

Boring, Boring?

The news (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jan/05/ofsted-boring-teachers) that OFSTED is to target 'boring teachers' as the claimed source of deterioration in the behaviour of children seems worthy of comment. The individual incomprehensibly interviewed (Christine Gilbert) maintained that 'research' she and others had carried out in a previous incarnation (as a Local Authority Director of Education) on a possible link between boredom and achievement had provided 'strong evidence' that much of it (the bad behaviour?) was (caused by?) boredom. It is certainly the case that pupils, students and teachers can be demotivated by boring presentations but it seems odd to base a whole policy initiative on one presumably self-fulfilling 'prophecy' for which no details are presented. How good is the study and did it consider a range of ages? I think it's worth raising a few complications. Firstly, I believe that teaching is most effective when there are at least two active participants. Unfortunately, some potential recipients apparently believe being bored is cool (such that getting them to admit to being even mildly interested in any topic is difficult). This can demotivate the teacher. Secondly, some material (although important and career-enhancing) is simply less interesting than other topics (so one might end up rating the material rather than the teacher). I appreciate that there can be innovative approaches even for 'dull' material but these take time, extra energy and resources. Thirdly, the teacher may have to work with individuals predisposed to boredom by their home and earlier school experiences. I would be interested to learn what people think on these issues.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Seeing the Changes 161

The chill and the duration of the local cold snap was emphasized by the appearance of mini ice floes on the Loughor estuary. It must be at least 25 years since there were similar scenes here!

Thursday, 1 January 2009

'Green' Cement?

We have already noted that the heating of limestone to create cement is a very major (about 5% of the world's annual production) source of the 'greenhouse gas', carbon dioxide and, even in this difficult economic times, human love to build. Reports have been made of the development of 'Novacem', a new Magnesium silicates-based cement by Dr Vlasopoulos and his team at Imperial College, London (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/31/cement-carbon-emissions). The new material is said to be carbon neutral, as it requires much less heating than limestone and actually absorbs carbon dioxide when it hardens. There is considerable commercial and environmental interest in the material but much will depend on price and people possibly finding it easier to source cement from relatively abundant limestone (companies have often paid for the mining rights in advance). Nevertheless, this is an interesting development, which might well improve the construction industry's carbon footprint.

Birder's Bonus 35



The 'Arctic' conditions (getting as low as minus 5 degrees Centigrade) from Christmas into the New Year persisted around the Loughor Estuary. The need to feed may have resulted in Little egrets (Egretta garzetta) tolerating relatively close approaches from humans on the cycle track. Lots of small waders, possibly Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola), were also active on the muddy river banks. Very unusually, a pair of Mute swans (Cygnus olor) appeared to be resting on this mud with four of their cygnets.

Bear-faced Robbery?

Yet another example of the tension between people and conservation is seen in the recent responses of people in rural Romania to a hunti...